Note: I actually wrote most of this for myself a while back after receiving and reading the “God Issue” if New Scientist magazine, which I mentioned here in the blog at the time. I found it sitting in my documents folder and thought I would post it here after a little freshening up. While I believe Victor Stenger is a sharp-minded fellow, his article in the magazine seemed to me to be little more than a parade of his biases and unscientific thinking that was more disappointing than educational. It seemed to demonstrate that, indeed, all of us are at the mercy of what I tend to call the Tyranny of Assumptions–even those who are sharp-minded fellows.
A recent issue of New Scientist which I commented on recently, dubbed by its editors “The God Issue,” contains an article by Victor J. Stenger that I found to be a real disappointment: “The God Hypothesis.” I really expected better from Dr. Stenger, a professor of physics and an outspoken atheist—or at least I expected good science. But it wasn’t to be had (at least not in this article). Before reading this article, I was tempted to read his book God: The Failed Hypothesis (tagline: “How science shows that God does not exist”), but I must say: If this article offers some of the best Stenger has to offer, I think I will probably reserve my time for reading better critics.
The point of the article is that God’s existence should be a scientifically testable hypothesis. More specifically, he says that if God exists, there should be consequences of His existence in the world, and, if so, then science should be able to discover and examine those consequences.
That’s true as far as it goes, and, of course, Stenger attempts to take it farther than it goes. However, he displays the real problem within his last paragraph:
“Finally, I would like to comment on the folly of faith. When faith rules over facts, magical thinking becomes deeply ingrained and warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence. Nowhere is this more evident that in the US today, where Christians who seek to convert the nation into a theocracy dominate the Republican party. Blind faith is no way to run a world.”
Here, Stenger displays his true feelings and demonstrates how untrustworthy his conclusions should be considered.
Really? The US provides him the most evidence on planet earth that faith blinds one to facts and “warps all areas of life”? And the Republican party is dominated by Christians seeking to convert the nation into a theocracy? I suppose that explains why Mitt Romney is doing so well these days: His desire to convert America into a theocracy. Or perhaps Stenger is looking at the surprising success in the primaries (closer to the time when his article was written) of Rick Santorum, whose voting record not only shows that he planned no theocracy, but whose claims about the connection between the sexual revolution and damage to women’s well-being has been picked up and supported by non-theists, as well, as an observation worth its salt.
Stenger likes the pretensions of an untainted commitment to truth, but his words reveal that his “commitment” plays second fiddle to his personal bias and inclinations.
It’s visible enough in the rest of his article, and—nothing personal against Mr. Stenger—it is a problem shared by many. Let’s take a look at that problem, using some quotes from his article as anchor points.
“If a properly controlled experiment were to come up with an observation that cannot be explained by natural means, then science would have to take seriously the possibility of a world beyond matter.”
Well, this really doesn’t happen, does it? Generally the position is taken that a “natural” answer will be found eventually, so let’s not worry about it. (Look at the faith many have in RNA world.) I’m not disagreeing with the idea inherent in what is being said; rather I am questioning whether many scientists really think this way. I’ve seen many more willing to simply go on faith that nature will eventually provide an explanation, and many have explicitly expressed their willingness to allow such questions to go unanswered eternally before they would “take seriously the possibility of a world beyond matter.”
And it should be said that “cannot be explained by natural means” is one incredibly elastic umbrella. Stenger’s statement sounds oh-so-reasonable, when it is truly not too far from this infamous statement from biologist and geneticist Richard Lewontin:
“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.
“It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
Before it is taken as a concession to fair play, Stenger’s comment should be read with Lewontin’s eloquent professio fidei in mind.
Here’s another statement of Dr. Stenger in the article that was a real hoot: “Scientists have empirically tested the efficacy of intercessory prayers.”
This comment was funny, not only treating God as if He were a rat in a maze, but as if all religions believe in the same rat. If all religions were somehow tapping into some odd, impersonal force in the world through intercessory prayer, then I could see these experiments producing results. But given that He is a person with goals and purposes—as opposed to a magical gumball machine, with which we put in magical quarters (prayers) and receive magical gumballs (healings)—Stenger’s comment that the results showed no impact is surprising to… whom?
(Next he moves on to Near Death Experiences, which is a non-starter for me. I have no dog in that hunt, since I do not believe the Bible teaches an immortal soul that leaves the body at death, so no surprises there. So, we’ll move on…)
When Stenger gets into scientists’ “seeking evidence against a god’s existence in the world around us,” he has to qualify himself:
“Here we must be clear that we are not talking about evidence against any and all conceivable gods. For example a deist god that creates the universe and then just leaves it alone would be very hard to falsify. But no one worships a god who does nothing.”
True, no one worships a god who does nothing, and yet, the creation of all that is—potentially with purpose and design and meaning and destiny—is hardly “nothing,” even if that is as far as things went. (It isn’t, by the way.) Understandably, part of what opens many people up to the idea that God, in some form or fashion, exists is the creation of the universe. One would be very justified in wondering why that God did so, and what His purpose was in creating the universe, regardless of His activity in or out of it since its creation. After all: A God who was present at the beginning may, indeed, show up at the end, His (imagined) absence of the moment notwithstanding. Is not the scientist, himself, the perfect picture of one who begins a process with a set purpose, allowing it to take its course so that the purpose is achieved by the time he returns to it at its conclusion (knowledge, cures, weapons, what have you)? [And, please, don’t get me started on the “falsificationism” fallacy he trots out there.]
And given the impotence physicists such as Mr. Stenger have experienced in explaining the cause behind the universe’s creation, his comment must be understood in that context. It’s an aside that reveals more than it seems.
Here’s another statement from the article: “If God is the intelligent designer of life on Earth, then we should find evidence for intelligence in observation of the structure of life. We do not. The Intelligent Design movement failed in its effort to prove that the complexity found in some biological systems is irreducible and cannot be explained within Darwinian evolution. Life on Earth looks exactly as it should look if it arose by natural selection.”
Yeah… except that it doesn’t. Evolution by natural selection simply does not explain what we see in the life of Earth, and it is a myth that all biologists think so (though I will not pretend that most of them do not). Even a leading light such as the late Lynn Margulis, though she had her own natural cause to champion, claimed that “The critics [of natural selection], including the creationist critics, are right about their criticism.” Then there is James Shapiro, who apparently steamed evolutionist grand inquisitor Jerry Coyne when he pointed out that neo-Darwinism and “natural selection über alles” just isn’t cutting it anymore and that what he calls purposeful, targeted “natural genetic engineering” may play a larger and more important role than natural selection. (In other words, life on earth does not look exactly as it should if it arose by natural selection.)
Truthfully, Stenger’s pithy “we do not” comments (which pepper the entire paper) say more about his personal confidence and faith than they do about the actual facts.
No, the Intelligent Design movement appears to be doing just fine and, if anything, making headway. When there has been no successful “unintelligent” explanation for origin of DNA—the heart and soul of every life form on earth—it is rather arrogant to say that life on earth is exactly as we should expect it to be if there were no designer, all other considerations aside. And when one begins to throw in the many additional considerations (e.g., the observations of James Shapiro previously mentioned, genetic entropy and papers such as Alexey Kondrashov’s “Why Aren’t We Dead 100 Times Over?”, et al.) it almost seems to go further than arrogance. Though, perhaps arrogance is enough.
Next in the article, Stenger attacks the idea of an immaterial component of the mind (he says “soul” but I would say “spirit”), by saying, “If that were true [that an immaterial component exists], we should be able to observe mentally induced phenomena that are independent of brain chemistry. We do not.”
This simply isn’t true, assuming I understand him correctly. What’s often referred to as “downward causation” has been seen in the laboratory before. Individual will has been seen to affect brain chemistry, rather than the other way around. (By the way, I assume he really does mean “independent of” and not “unassociated with” which would be different and irrelevant.) If he is claiming that upward causation from chemistry to thoughts has been established beyond reasonable doubt, he is without real support. His approach could be mimicked by saying, “If it were true that the mind is purely and completely a physical phenomenon produced by uncaring chemicals, we should be able to observe a chemical cause for every mental phenomenon. We do not.” I would be happy to grant that this statement is faulty, but it is no more faulty than Stenger’s, which is more advocacy than science reporting.
(And, again, I take “independent of” not to mean “unassociated with.” I believe the evidence shows the human mind to be a product of both the non-physical human spirit and the physical human brain, so an association between mental phenomena and brain chemistry should be expected.)
More could be said, but this should be enough. I do encourage you to read the article over at New Scientist. (I’m not sure if a subscription is required; it might be, though often a limited number of free reads are allowed.) It’s title claims that “God is a testable hypothesis.” However, reading critically you will find that the article places its author under the microscope more than its supposed Subject.